Cholesterol Rx Could be New Treatment for MS

Multiple sclerosis patients taking simvastatin had less brain atrophy than those on placebo

(RxWiki News) A commonly used cholesterol-lowering medication is showing promise as a new therapy for patients who have lived with multiple sclerosis (MS) for a while.

MS is an autoimmune disease effecting the brain and central nervous system that often leads to disability. The most common form of MS is relapsing-remitting MS, in which the disease flares but then abates for a while. For people past the early stage — those with secondary progressive MS — there is no known treatment.

Now researchers have found that simvastatin (also sold under brand name Zocor), a statin medication, may be a therapy to use as the disease progresses. This medication is already known and widely used to treat high cholesterol, and now it may be one of the first medications available to treat secondary progressive MS, by slowing brain atrophy (loss of brain mass).

"If you have MS, ask your doctor about new treatments appropriate for you."

Researchers in England, led by Jeremy Chataway, PhD, of University College London, conducted this early study in which patients who took simvastatin for two years showed less decline than other patients in the study who did not take the medication.

This double-blind control trial involved 140 people, aged 18 to 65, with secondary progressive MS. They were enrolled between January 2008 and November 2011.

Half the patients were randomly assigned to take 80 mg of simvastatin daily, and half took a placebo (fake medication).

At the end of two years, patients on the medication had a 43 percent reduction in brain atrophy (loss of brain mass) compared to the placebo group. The percentage was based on the reduction the researchers expected to see in a person taking the medication for one year.

The researchers took brain scans to gauge the effect of the medication.

People on simvastatin also scored somewhat better on movement tests and questionnaires that assess disability.

Side effects experienced by the group taking simvastatin were minimal but similar to reports of side effects of those in the study taking placebo.

Simvastatin has been on the market for a while and is inexpensive. The researchers decided to try it on MS patients because other studies have suggested it may be useful. Simvastatin is known to modify the immune response and to offer some protective effect to neurons.

Dr. Chataway and team noted that there were limitations to their study, including that a reduction in brain atrophy does not necessarily lead to clinical benefit; that is, patients may not report that their mental or physical function is better after taking the medication.

However, the promising results of this study do suggest that a larger trial is warranted, the authors wrote. “In summary, our results show that oral simvastatin at 80 mg per day might be a treatment option for secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, which is currently untreatable, and warrants further investigation in a larger phase 3 trial.”

This study appeared March 19 in The Lancet.

The authors declared no competing interests.

Review Date: 
March 20, 2014